Shepherd to the world

Posted: Apr 18, 2005 12:00 AM
Pope John Paul II passed away last week after 26 years of service to the Catholic Church, and to the world. In the aftermath of his death, I would like to reflect deeper on his examples and contributions to moral striving around the world.

The Pope was synonymous with the Catholic Church. But in many ways he was so much more. He was a towering figure in international politics, and spread democracy throughout the world. He was instrumental in bringing about the fall of Russia, and stemming the tide of Communism in Eastern Europe. He engineered a summit between Israel and the Palestine National Authority, prayed at the Wailing Wall, recognized Israel as an official state, and apologized for the church?s policy of non-involvement during the Holocaust. He was also the first pope to visit a Muslim mosque, carrying with him a message of interfaith healing. He combated global poverty, urged humanitarian action in former Yugoslavia, and used technology to spread the word of Christ throughout the world. In a world of six billion, he stood out as a unifying figure whose example of compassion and courage shepherded the world.

Even as he ascended as a modern figure of interfaith healing, mending the chasm between Protestants and Catholics, and between Catholics and Jews, he always remained resolute in his dedication to traditional Catholic doctrine. He never budged from his opposition to birth control or gay marriage. He referred to the ordination of women and divorce as "crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize." In a time when notions of political correctness were supplanting the plain meaning of the scriptures, the Pope remained firm in his dedication to traditional ideals. He declared that the homosexual lifestyle was in direct violation of biblical scriptures. He refused to endorse homosexuals as priests, even as the Episcopal Church moved toward blessing same sex unions. He understood that such changes were so pervasive as to separate the church from the very scriptures it was created to uphold. Most of all, he understood that the approval of a homosexual priest by the church sends a message that the church is pulling way from the very principles that have animated it with meaning. It says that the traditions that have been essential to Christendom are eroding.

It says that our sense of morality is in crisis. After all, religion derives much of its meaning from its ability to provide us with an absolute moral point of reference that helps us discern between right and wrong. Without this foundation, we are condemned to formless lives. It is this absolute moral point that allows us to move beyond a strictly social (or relative) frame of reference to open the door to authentic spiritual discovery. Moral absolutes are the lifeblood of religion?all religion. The Bible is a testament to moral absolutes. The word of God defines marriage only in terms of men and women and explicitly denounces homosexuality as a sin. Throughout its history, the church has consistently found that a homosexual lifestyle violates the basic tenets of the bible. As such it was the Pope?s duty as a moral leader to stress the importance of a loving union between man and wife, under God. It was his duty to preserve these basic and essential principles that arbitrate our lives. On this point, the Holy Father never wavered.

When the long hushed rumors of ministers preying upon choir boys exploded into a public scandal, Pope John Paul II provided a counterbalance, in the form of religious striving untainted by the selfish desires of our bodies and minds. His example continued to inspire men to the cloth. In many ways the survival of the church rested upon his embodiment of disembodied sanctity. He counseled President Clinton and President Bush (George W and George HW). He passionately fought against the death penalty, pleading instead for forgiveness. He led the way, memorably visiting and forgiving the Turkish man who tried to kill him. This was enough to make me reconsider my views on the death penalty.

No matter what your own personal religious beliefs, we could all identify with the Holy Father?s essential humanity. He reminded us of the truly beautiful possibilities within ourselves. He spoke to our modern condition, to the spiritual illness that springs not from plague or locusts, but from mean personal vanity and western consumerism. He spoke to a spiritual illness that derives from apathy and decadence and he challenged us to purge our mean personal vanity and to do good in return.

Pope John Paul II?s message of healing and forgiveness was heard throughout the world. Prince Charles delayed his wedding to attend the funeral. He was joined by President Bush, marking the first time an American President attended a Pope?s funeral. More than 200 other dignitaries from around the world, four kings, and 14 leaders from other religious backgrounds came to pay their respects at Pope John Paul II?s funeral. In America, flags were flown at half mast.

Pope John Paul II towered above the egocentric concerns of our daily lives. He reminded us that it is only when we place our faith in God, that we create for ourselves an immutable foundation. Only then do we have an absolute moral reference point that fixes our lives with meaning. Only then do we move on to the eternal